Nanny Brown’s Scrapbook: Photography by Jackie Norman
A Restraining Order . . .
As I handled Grace Brown’s personal Scrapbook I was occupied with my part as the photographer and treated it as a task to be completed technically. I set up lights, diffusers, tripod and stand. I concentrated on choosing the lens, controlling consistency of colour, parallel planes, and evenness of lighting. However, every so often I would realise with a jolt what a unique document this book was. It was irreplaceable, and until someone photographed it, unreproducible.
It was like getting to know a person slowly. One of the first impressions was that Nanny Brown loved flowers. In addition to the typical contemporary floral cards, she pasted in flower pictures from magazines or catalogues. She clearly did not search out images of plants in dramatic locations like deserts or mountains. She liked her wildlife neat, named and domesticated. Preferably common identifiable garden flowers: daffodils, chrysanthemums or roses. However it appears that she did also hanker after something more exotic – she requested lemon seeds from her families who had emigrated to the United States during the War. We don’t see her side of the correspondence, but we read the exasperation of one correspondent that the exact type of lemon pips requested by Nanny Brown are impossible to acquire. One wonders why she was so insistent on growing lemons: she could hardly have had a G & T habit. The request for lemon seeds comes in 1943, by which time she must have had access to a garden, as the correspondent discusses frost.
The huge amount of information that we do not know about Grace Brown is exactly what hooks us in to know more. To quote Elizabeth Speller writing about the recent exhibition of Hadrian at the British Museum: Fragments have a power to be more than the sum of their parts. The arbitrary survival of ancient artefacts is one of the seductive features of classical history. We are left both desiring more and with a need to engage individually with what is left to fill in the blanks. http://www.newstatesman.com/arts-and-culture/2008/08/emperor-hadrian-empire-british This explains well why the one-sided correspondence that we have ‘received’ from Nanny Brown is so riveting and intriguing.
Her forms of self expression that we know about for the major part of her working life were her scrapbook, and gardening by proxy. As a Nanny she may have kept plants in her room, but that is probably all. In our times we are (possibly) fortunate to be able to indulge our ‘need’ for self expression. We can observe those who choose to do it by a car sticker, bling dangling from a mobile phone, or a handbag with a NAME, but many of us also need to create something too. I find it makes me furious to imagine what it must be like to be gagged or constrained by society.
Did Grace Brown feel as if she were working within a confined emotional space and that she could not express herself? It is unlikely though that she thought in those terms. Did she at least make up songs or stories with her charges, the children? Did she play at galloping, or invent ‘exploring’ games with them in the University of Oxford Botanical Park and Arboretum near where she lived with their families, or was it just prams, boats, sticks and hoops and don’t spoil your clothes?
Above all, I would love to know what and how she wrote back to the people who sent those letters and cards. And I wonder if she wrote to them more than they wrote to her?